Courtroom dramas are about as frequent as starcrossed lover romance films, but we know how the romance films usually end.
We sometimes know, or hope we know, how the courtroom drama will end.
The test of a good movie, especially a courtroom one, is in the rewatching. When you already know the ending, do you want to see it again.
“Anatomy of a Murder” is one you’ll watch over and over and over. At two hours and forty minutes, it demands a commitment from you. Otto Preminger directs so artfully that you hardly notice his work. The black-and-white film works, and I wonder if it was because of the subject matter. You can get away with more in black-and-white, as Hitchcock showed in “Psycho” the following year, and this film was controversial to say the least. It’s subject matter crime and the language used in court weren’t exactly common in 1959.
The film is carried by Jimmy Stewart, and it’s a good thing he is so great. There’s hardly a scene without him, and his supporting cast is that – supportive. Most scenes are about Stewart and everyone else either is feeding him setups for a great line or giving comic relief punchlines that set up his even better reactions. If “Ben Hur” came out a different year, there is no way Stewart doesn’t with an Oscar for this performance.
Stewart plays Paul Biegler and Lee Remick plays the wife of the accused, who gets what she wants by flirting, and that reputation causes her trouble in court. She tries to win over Biegler, but he’s too experienced to fall for it. Biegler’s a former prosecutor, which means he’s an exceptional defense attorney. He knows what the prosecutor will chase and sets various traps to get his way.
He’s the one we care about. We don’t really watch to see if the accused husband is successful in beating the charge, and the wife’s charming flirtations don’t really go anywhere. The big dramatic reveal really doesn’t shock anyone, and it’s not a “You can’t handle the truth” moment.
Because despite the courtroom script, Jimmy Stewart is why I like this film. He’s a country lawyer who would rather fish than go to court. He’s not rich and doesn’t seem interesting in getting so. Everyone knows him in town, but he doesn’t show up much except to play occasional jazz piano.
In court, up against an Assistant Attorney General who just happened to come in for a trial (how often does that happen?), we are cheering for Biegler to win, not because of justice or a sympathy for the accused, but because we want Biegler to win.
That’s worth 160 minutes any day.
Look for Duke Ellington playing piano with Jimmy Stewart. Worth the price of admission alone.